Bob Hawke 

By Mike Steketee

Connor Court Publishing Pty Ltd, 2022

ISBN: 9781922815200

RRP: $19.95 (pb)

Reviewed by Paul Henderson



The Australian Biographical Monographs series covers the lives and roles of many Australian political leaders. As Mike Steketee, a former chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald base in Canberra and political editor, points out there is a real concern about the significant decline in the number of Australian students who study Australian History at both senior secondary and tertiary levels. The reviewer of this book, having taught Australian History for several decades, would agree totally with his observations.

This book, which is very well presented, may help draw attention to the life of one of Australia’s most successful politicians. It is the life of a most accessible Australian figure and, as such, an easy way in for students of Australian history. As Steketee writes:

He [Bob Hawke] was a celebrity politician, claiming a special relationship with the Australian people – one that Paul Keating, who succeeded him as prime minister, referred to derisively as “tripping over television cables in shopping centres”.

Bob Hawke was the Prime Minister of Australia between March 1983 and December 1991. He won four elections, which is the highest winning total of any Labor leader in Federal politics. During all this time he was very much a person of the people.

Over the years there have been a number of books and articles written about Hawke. Some of these were very detailed. On the other hand, Steketee has written a small book of less than 100 pages. However, it is very detailed and covers a large number of events. Also, it is easy to follow. It is the type of book that will bring people back to reading about other Australians and what they contributed – as well as Hawke.

The early chapters cover the period of Hawke’s early years up to the time when he entered Federal Parliament. They are fulsome and provide the foundation for his life as a politician.

Having left school, Hawke went on to studies at the University of Western Australia where he studied law, economics and arts. In addition, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford.  Hawke considered taking a place at the Bar but he became more interested in political issues and became a research officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) after which he was involved in advocating the interests of workers. He became President of the ALP in 1973 (he had succeeded Albert Monk as ACTU President in 1969).

Steketee spends a large part of his book (about a third) discussing Hawke’s involvement in government and economic policy, both before and after he entered parliament. While some readers might find this too detailed, it is imperative that Hawke’s achievements are covered in depth. As Steketee describes something of Hawke’s style while at the ACTU, a lot of the Bob Hawke as PM comes through. Arguing for a reinstatement of wage indexation Steketee describes the scene:

Hawke lectured and hectored and shouted his arguments – not a style that immediately appealed to judges used to deference and gentle persuasion from those appearing before them. But he eventually won them over by sheer logic and force of argument, backed by a knowledge of economics far greater than those on the bench.

Hawke entered the House of Representatives, winning a seat for Labor Party in the Melbourne electorate of Wills in October 1980. At that time, Federal Labor was led by Bill Hayden, who was a competent leader but lacked Hawke’s popularity.  From his early days in the House of Representatives, Hawke undermined Hayden. In an initial leadership challenge he lost 42 votes to 37. Hawke continued the pressure and eventually, shortly before the 1983 Federal election, Hayden resigned, allowing Hawke to become leader. Hawke was ruthless in his efforts to win the party leadership.

Hawke went to work immediately. A significant part of the book covers what he achieved as prime minister. His workload, with a smaller cabinet over the next years, was substantial. Hawke called an economic summit, floated the Australian dollar and made superannuation compulsory. There were also reforms to the medical system along with major tax changes, the first since 1945.

In other areas, students were encouraged to stay at school longer, while the Higher Education Contribution Scheme allowed students to undertake tertiary education and pay fees back later. Family allowances were introduced.  The Hawke Government stopped the damning of the Franklin River in Tasmania under Section 51, Part 19 of the Constitution. He helped protect the Kakadu Park in the Northern Territory, while opposing apartheid in South Africa. The Hawke Government returned Ayers Rock to its original owners. Hawke’s “hail fellow, well met” style connected with people in all walks of life.

Hawke presided over a successful foreign policy and was able to handle difficult situations with countries and leaders both in Australia and overseas. This was evident when Australia maintained relations with both the Ronald Reagan administration in the United States and the Mikhail Gorbachev government in the Soviet union. Hawke saw the importance of establishing regional groups such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asian Pacific Co-Operation organisation (APEC). He saw Australia as a middle- power country that would act accordingly. The Hawke Government established a working relationship with China which was adversely affected for a period after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. And Hawke was a supporter of Israel and the Jewish people seeking to leave the Soviet Union. Steketee traces the Hawke support for Israel even against many in his own party:

Hawke’s support for Israel was deep-seated, emotional and went back to his days as trade union leader. “I think the most emotional experience of my whole career was a meeting with Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister in 1973”, Hawke wrote. She wept in front of Hawke, blaming herself for the deaths of 2500 young Israelis in the Yom Kippur war. At her request, he went to the Soviet Union to argue for the release of “refuseniks”.

Some authors tend to stress the good things prime ministers or politicians and other politicians do – and play down the rest.  Not so Mike Steketee. From early on in the book, he notes that Hawke had strengths and weaknesses, and does not hold back in stating both.

Hawke had clashes with judges in the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission who disliked his rough and ready manner, but he was recognised as a good advocate. He had many clashes with leaders of the ACTU and the ALP but, on the other hand, particularly when PM, he could attentively listen to his ministers and ran a very efficient cabinet.

As stated earlier, Hawke was ruthless in his attempts to take over the leadership from Hayden who, had he stayed Labor leader, probably would have won the 1983 election. Hawke had a very high opinion of himself. While the author stresses his successes as PM with Paul Keating as his Treasurer, the two frequently clashed. As the years went by, Keating maintained that Hawke had promised him the prime ministership, but had gone back on this. There was bitterness between the two, which the author handles well.  After one unsuccessful attempt, Keating defeated Hawke in a leadership ballot in December 1991 – Hawke resigned from parliament shortly after. As the years went on, Hawke lost some of his popularity due to personal flaws.

The Hawke government had much success and achieved a great deal. However, while all of this is explained, not a great deal is mentioned by the author about the Opposition – the Liberal Party-National Party Coalition.

In fact, the Liberal Party was divided into two groups, led by John Howard and Andrew Peacock, which were separated by a number of different issues. This worked in the favour of the ALP. In addition, there was chaos in Queensland, where the National Party Premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, was threatening to stand as PM for both the National and Liberal Parties – the Joh for Canberra Movement. Also, when John Hewson was leader of the of the Liberal Party after the 1990 election, he was not very effective in the lead-up to the 1993 election, which Labor won.

As mentioned earlier, Michael Steketee is keen to get more people to study Australian history. He has succeeded in this instance. This book is easy to read, well explained and adequately handles people and events.

Paul Henderson is the author of several books on Australian history and politics.